Najaf (Arabic: النجف) is a city in Iraq about 160 km (roughly 100 miles) south of Baghdad. Its estimated population in 2008 is 560,000 people. It is the capital of Najaf Governorate. It is widely considered the third holiest city of Shi'a Islam and the center of Shia political power in Iraq.
Najaf is considered sacred by both Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. Najaf is renowned as the site of the tomb of Alī ibn Abī Tālib also known as "Imām Alī"the First Imam of the Shiites, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad whom the Shi'a consider to be the righteous caliph . Sunnis consider Ali the fourth Rashidun (rightly guided Caliphs). The city is now a great center of pilgrimage from throughout the Shi'a Islamic world. It is estimated that only Mecca and Medina receive more Muslim pilgrims. As the burial site of Shi'a Islam's second most important figure the Imam Ali Mosque is considered by Shiites as the third holiest Islamic site.
The Imam Ali Mosque is housed in a grand structure with a gold gilded dome and many precious objects in the walls. Nearby is the Wadi-us-Salaam cemetery, which is the largest cemetery in the world. It contains the tombs of several prophets and many of the devout from around the world aspire to be buried there, to be raised from the dead with Imām Alī on Judgement Day. Over the centuries, numerous hospices, schools, libraries and Sufi convents were built around the shrine to make the city the center of Shīʻa learning and theology.
The Najaf seminary is one of the most important teaching centres in the Islamic world. Ayatollah Khomeini lectured there from 1964-1978. Many of the leading figures of the new Islamic movement that emerged in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon in the 1970s had studied at Najaf.
The Najaf area is located 30 km south of the ancient city of Babylon and 400 km north of the ancient Biblical city of Ur. The city itself was reputedly founded in 791 by the Abbasid Caliph Harūn ar-Rashīd, as a shrine to Ali ibn Abi Talib.
Ali ibn Abi Talib instructed that his burial place should remain a secret as he had many enemies and he feared that his body might be subjected to some indignity. According to legend the dead body of Ali was placed on a camel which was driven from Kufa. The camel stopped a few miles west of the city and here the body was secretly buried. No tomb was raised and nobody knew of the burial place except for a few trusted people.
It is narrated that more than a hundred years later the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, went deer hunting outside Kufa and the deer sought sanctuary at a place where the hounds would not pursue it. On inquiry as to why the place was a sanctuary Harūn ar-Rashīd was told that it was the burial place of Ali. Harūn ar-Rashīd ordered a mausoleum to be built on the spot and in due course the town of Najaf grew around the mausoleum.
Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire Najaf experienced severe difficulties as the result of repeated raids by Arab desert tribes and Persian army and acute water shortages caused by the lack of a reliable water supply. The number of inhabited houses in the city had plummeted from 3000 to just 30 by the start of the 16th century.
When the Portuguese traveller Pedro Texeira passed through Najaf in 1604, he found the city in ruins, inhabited by little more than 500 people.
During the 18th century the scholarly life of Najaf came to be dominated by Persian-speaking ulema from Iran.
The city was besieged by the Wahhabis in the late 18th century, which prompted the clergy of the city to arrange for the construction of a wall around the city and under-ground tunnels as a refuge for the women and children if the wall was overrun. These fortifications successfully repelled a Wahhabi siege later on. The water shortages were finally resolved in 1803 with the construction of the Hindiyya canal, following which the city's population rapidly doubled from 30,000 to 60,000.
The Ottomans were expelled in an uprising in 1915, following which the city fell under the rule of the British Empire. The sheikhs of Najaf rebelled in 1918, killing the British governor of the city by Sayed Mahdi Al-Awadi and cutting off grain supplies to the Anaza, a tribe allied with the British. In retaliation the British besieged the city and cut off its water supply. The rebellion was put down and the rule of the sheikhs was forcibly ended. A great number of the Shia ulema were expelled into Persia/Iran where they set the foundations for the rise of the city of Qom as the center of the Shia learning and authority in lieu of Najaf. Najaf lost its religious primacy to Qom and was not to regain it until the 21st century and the establishment of a Shia-majority government in Iraq after 2003.